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This article was prepared by Douglas Dixon for the May 4, 2005

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

In Video, It’s Prose Versus Amateurs

by Douglas Dixon

In the 1980s the Apple Macintosh popularized graphical interfaces, and

professional graphics designers were horrified to discover that

ink-jet and laser printers had magically transformed us all into

instant experts in typography and document layout.

Then in the 1990s, professional photographers and graphics artists saw

their expertise similarly devalued as powerful computers and consumer

software, combined with inexpensive digital cameras and scanners,

allowed us all to become photo enhancers and image artists.

Now the march of progress has reached video producers and editors, as

any kid in the basement can use consumer-accessible equipment to shoot

and edit commercials, corporate events, and even independent films.

In the face of the unstoppable digital revolution, and with this kind

of low-cost competition, why has Burkewood Communications chosen to

expand its Princeton-based video production business? And since

everyone knows that you need to be in L.A. or New York to do high-end

broadcast and film production, why would Burkewood also be adding a

new post-production facility, Deep Post, based on Mapleton Road just

off Route 1?

What Burkewood is doing is to position itself as a high-end facility,

offering New York or L.A. quality talent to clients (including

Bristol-Myers Squibb and MasterCard supported by appropriate

investments in professional tools.

"It is not about technology," says Burke Wood, president, "It’s about

talent. Clients will invariably try something different, something

cheaper, but it’s the talent that will keep them coming back. You have

to stay on top of technology, but it’s really about coming up with

something that makes your client look good."

"We help them distinguish themselves," he says. "Editing is one thing,

but then putting the polish on it is another. We can take a project

that looks pretty straightforward, and we can put the gloss on and

then all of a sudden it looks like it belongs on [ABC News] 20/20.

We’re all about providing clients with a very high-quality looking

project. We’re not about the Madison Avenue or L.A. sticker shock."

The trick, then, is to be able to provide that high level of creative

talent when clients demand it, but without needing to maintain a large

permanent staff. The typical solution for production companies is to

have a pool of local freelancers that can be called in for specific

jobs. Burkewood has a deeper approach, building relationships with

creative talent that it can represent when bringing in new work.

Burkewood starts with five people on staff: Burke Wood as president

and director, Gregg Suskin as executive producer and writer, Peter

Casale as production manager, David Stone as hands-on video editor and

artist, and Matt Pona, assistant producer/editor. Then develops

relationships with other directors and visual effects artists to add

to its roster.

"Burke is an extremely talented director," says Suskin. "He does

really good jobs on interviewing people, on getting performances. He’s

particularly good in comedy. We brought in another director who brings

in a more youthful element, so we’re adding talent and are not

conflicting with ourselves."

"It’s a symbiotic relationship through representation," says Wood.

"You have the rapport and relationship with this guy, and he becomes

like a family member. He’s also getting jobs on his own, and bringing

his jobs into our house for production support. It’s like how a

general contractor builds a house."

But how can you do business outside the major cities, when clients are

used to coming in to the edit suite to oversee their productions?

Burkewood uses the Internet to stream videos of the edited clips, or

even live videos of the editing sessions, for example, to clients in

Washington, D.C.

"People are trying to run leaner and meaner," says Wood, "and I think

we dovetail into that. We do it a little smarter, a little more

cost-effective. We stream right from the edit monitor while we are

editing, and we have the client on the phone at the same time."

"The boundaries used to be at Madison Avenue," says Suskin. "Those

barriers are gone with live streaming." After all, it’s a huge cost to

the client to have four or five people visiting the edit studio all

day.

"The clients love it," says Suskin. "We have a relationship with them;

the most important thing is that they trust us, and they know we do

good work. But often clients are testing themselves and asking whether

it really makes sense to work with a company up there in Princeton. So

they go across the street for a project, and they find out that it’s

more of a hassle than just turning on your computer and watching." And

clients are traveling all across the country, so it’s more efficient

to have the edits available anywhere, on a desktop or laptop.

But why Princeton? For Suskin, his New York company had grown too

large, and now he can start over with a smaller company closer to his

home, but still in a premier location.

"I was a founding principal of Blue Rock Editing in New York," says

Suskin. "But I lived down here, and I found Burke, and thought he was

on a great track here. He has a really good client base of his own,

and had made good choices in the high-end equipment he was putting in.

He didn’t go the cheap route, and that excited me."

"At my company in New York, we started with three people, and when I

left we had 88. I sold my stock in that company, I couldn’t do it

anymore. I would walk down the hall and people wouldn’t know who I

was."

Moving outside New York also provides huge cost savings. "The prices

in New York are based on companies spending $40 a square foot," says

Suskin, "and that’s just for starters, just to open up in the morning.

Our place was featured in Architectural Digest. It was five stories in

midtown Manhattan, with a circular staircase."

"One of the big differences that enables us to stay cost-effective is

that you are not dealing with that flavor of the month mentality," he

says. "If you are a New York ad agency, you feel an obligation to go

with the hip name of the month, which brings the prices up. Our

postproduction prices consistently start at least 25 percent lower,

and sometimes much more than that. A major 30-second television

commercial would be in the $10,000 range, where a comparable New York

City facility would be in a $25,000 range. In the city you could pay

$1,500 an hour for a top editor."

But if you’re after cost savings, and the Internet allows you to be

located anywhere, why set up shop in Princeton, rather than Podunk?

"We like the quality of life out here." says Wood. "We want our

facility to be the kind of place where people enjoy coming. Princeton

is very special, and there’s a lot of intelligent and cultured people

down here. People all over the country recognize that when I’m

traveling, that it’s beautiful, and you can get out of the rat race.

We can go out to lunch in downtown Princeton, or relax and go for a

long walk along the canal. It’s very creative; it’s a great way to

build a relationship with people. You’re not armed to the teeth."

The location is also great for attracting talent. "You go over to

Princeton Junction in the morning," says Wood, "and there are a lot of

people in our business getting on the trains in the morning."

"We pride ourselves on the creative edge that we have with the New

York talent," says Suskin, "There are people in this area that have

won every award. They’re fed up with the way things have been done in

the past, and they’re looking to go smaller, not bigger, and looking

to remain creative."

Burkewood uses its high-end creative talent to attract high-end

customers, which in turn helps to retain that talent. But the staff

also needs the appropriate technology to work efficiently, to separate

Burkewood from the proverbial kid in the garage with a Macintosh.

Over the past few years, Burkewood has made significant investments in

professional-grade tools. Burkewood now has four Media 100 i/xs video

editing systems (www.media100.com). These work with full-quality

uncompressed video (too much data for desktop systems), providing a

faster and more efficient workflow for quick rough cuts or editing of

long form material (for around $30,000 to $50,000). And Burkewood has

acquired two Discreet Smoke video editing and finishing systems

(www4.discreet.com/smoke), which provide real-time response for

building visual effects, including keying, lighting, 3D positioning,

and color correction of multiple layers of motion video, graphics, and

text. The Discreet systems cost around $150,000, but a full edit suite

more like $250,000, with consoles, tape decks, air conditioning, etc.

"It’s not just a matter of buying the right technology," says Wood.

"There are not many people working with Discreet products in this

area, because all the best talent pursues Discreet products, and they

have been traditionally based in very high end post facilities. Our

attitude was that we bought Discreet products because they’re the

best, and the best people want to work on them. And then we attract

people of like mind, that don’t necessarily get off on the whole New

York or L.A. thing."

More responsive equipment also provides more creative flexibility.

"When you have this equipment you’re not limited by anything," says

Suskin. "If you have an idea that you want to try out, you can go in

there and just experiment." In comparison, when you’re working at an

outside facility and paying a hourly rate for the edit suite, "the

editor or the producer are very cautious about what they say," he

says. "If they come out with a great idea, the clients say ‘I can’t

pay for that,’ but they still want to see it. A lot of times, editors

just keep their mouth shut. And that’s just not fair to the project,

and it’s not fair to the client."

"We take it to a different level," says Wood. "The clients see how

much you put into it, that you went the extra mile, and they come back

for more."

And the kid in the garage? Yes, a really creative person can create

great work with a desktop tool like Adobe After Effects, even in a

garage. But, says Wood, "our machines are so much faster, and so much

more responsive. With After Effects, it’s come back tomorrow. Our

clients have tight deadlines; they want to see the change in an hour.

After Effects is a great tool, very powerful, but very time consuming.

We were getting fairly decent results, but something that takes us a

day now used to take four to five days. We were working around the

clock trying to compress time. We were dying."

"We would leave at six or seven o’clock and start it rendering," says

Suskin, "and then come back in the morning and then ‘whoops, oh my

God, we have to start all over again.’ These are things that start-up

companies face, the learning curve. But you only get one shot with a

client. Then you’re on the phone trying to explain to somebody that

doesn’t know an f-stop from an F train. They don’t care – they have

the meeting, a client is going to be here. You can’t work that way."

"People don’t know the commitment that it takes to get into this

industry," he says. "They think that because the price of some of

these technologies has come down that I can buy a box and I am in

business. That’s not what business is about. I don’t care how good a

lawyer, or a doctor, or an editor, or a director you are, it takes 10

years to be great at something. These colleges are turning out

communications majors by the truckload. They think that they’re going

to get a camera and a Mac, and they think they’re in business. ‘If you

give me this job, I’ll go out and get the camera and the insurance.’"

"It doesn’t work that way, you have to be for real. Companies that are

willing to make a commitment to you, they want to see the commitment

from you. They want to see that you are going to be there tomorrow,

and the day after."

Burkewood Communications was founded in 1986 by Kate Burke Wood,

Burke’s mother, to focus on producing programs for corporate and

institutional clients. Burke’s father, John Wood, then left a

marketing position with Merrill Lynch to join the company to manage

the finances.

Kate Wood had begun her career in education after graduating from

Wellesley College, serving as college placement advisor and head of

the upper school at the Kent Place School in Summit. "She got into

production out of necessity," says Wood. "She wanted to do some cable

programming for families." In 1979 she founded and served as executive

director of the Educational Consortium for Cable, producing

award-winning programs on family issues.

As his mother was re-focusing on commercial production, Burke

completed his degree from Skidmore College in political science, and

joined Burkewood in 1987, when the company also relocated from Summit

to Princeton. "I got involved as a production assistant, and slowly

learned what was going on."

In 1994 the Woods decided to focus more on higher end commercial

projects under the name Burkewood Films. "Communications seemed like

such a vague word," says Wood. "I was well into directing, and I was

so longing to work in film. Everyone wanted to shoot film: the people

doing corporate want to do film, and the people doing 35mm wanted to

do features. Everyone wants to climb up the ladder. No one is happy

doing the same thing for too long, because you want to grow."

But now, he says, "film is not such a cool word. People are more

progressive, and it sounds a little old-fashioned. We’re going back to

our roots in Burkewood Communications; it can incorporate everything

that we’re doing, including our postproduction side as Deep Post."

In 2002, Kate Wood produced Alphabet Road, a children’s programming

series developed in a joint venture with GoBabies, Inc.

(www.gobabies.com). This was the first American children’s program

aired on Afghan Television. Kate also is a producer of FireDancer, the

first Afghan film to be admitted for an Academy Award nomination, and

a 2003 Tribeca Film Festival selection.

Kate Wood and Burke Wood are involved in the "big picture" development

of the company, and working on Alphabet Road. "I try to keep her out

of the nitty-gritty," says Wood. "We go for triples and home runs with

her, and Greg and I work on the singles and doubles."

In January, Burkewood opened its Deep Post video post-production

editing and finishing "boutique." "I had always relied on outside

companies for post," says Wood. "They charged $75 or $50 an hour, and

if you’re not working on a big budget to begin with, that’s soaking up

a lot of bucks. After beating my head against the scheduling board at

local facilities I finally said, this is silly, the Media 100 isn’t

all that expensive, I’ll pay it back in a year, and I’ll be able to

work as much as I need. I bought a second one about three years ago."

But even with the editing systems, Burkewood was still going out of

house for post-production finishing work. "We had such a volume of

work," says Wood, "and were sending so many dollars out the door. I

finally figured I had to make the leap and bought the Discreet

finishing technology."

"When you get your own system," he says, "you can put a lot more

attention to it. You really are able to put love into a project, and

not feel like every hour it’s money down the drain."

The next challenge for Burkewood is growing the business, the old

fashioned way. "If it was easy everyone would be successful and

wealthy," says Wood. "I’ve been in this market for 15 years battling

it out and building this company. We need to get the word out, that we

are here, and we are ready."

And that takes persistence. "With my best clients," says Suskin, "it

took me two, three, four years of calls to get in the door. The plant

your seeds, you water them, and then six to eight months later

something sprouts out of the ground. They may not have something for

me today, but they’ll go to the website. And the next time they have

an assignment, they’ll call and say ‘I need a favor.’ They don’t call

you because you have great talent or great equipment; they call when

they need you. And when they call and you perform, then you’re in

business."

But what Burkewood is selling is the quality of the results, the look,

the "gloss" that takes a straightforward video edit to a whole new

level. "It has to do with experience and taste and talent," says Wood.

"It takes artistry. You can look at something mediocre, and say it’s

good enough, just put a little glow on it. But I want the glow to

emanate from here, and I want the light source to be here, so the

shadow kicks this way.

"If you look at my 1-800-Flowers spot," he says, "you’ll see the gloss

on it. First, the cuts are good, I chose the content carefully, and

then on top of it, the gloss. Then you have something. That can take

something that looks straight and make it look gorgeous."

For example, Burkewood was working on a political spot with the

typical scenes of the politician meeting voters, combined with

overlaid text to emphasize the message. A customer would then ask for

the spot to look better, using instructions like: "make it high-end

looking," or "give it a graphic look," or "elegant or clean," or

"beautiful and readable, accessible, with artistic design."

In the Burkewood spot, the result was a feeling of dimension, as

multiple layers of video and text elements were composited together,

in motion, into the final effect. The central video scene was framed

by motion graphics and video backgrounds, and emphasized by the text,

also in motion. And all the elements were subtlety improved, from

color-correcting the different video clips to match visually, fading

and framing the background video, adding shadows and glints to the

overlays, and the careful composition so that the motion elements

never obscured the important elements in the main video. Gloss also

can include other behind-the-scene video clean-up and enhancement,

including "rig removal" to "erase" unwanted elements from a scene,

even while the camera is in motion.

"You can look at workmanship and craftsmanship that you know from your

life," says Suskin. "If your car gets in an accident, you could just

spray paint it, but you would know the difference. I’m the biggest

pain for any craftsman who does work for me. Someone puts tiles down

in the bathroom, and I look at it and see something. And they’ll say,

‘who’s going to see that?’ Well, I see that."

"It makes such a difference when you look at a finely built house,"

says Wood. "You look at a certain houses, and there’s no finishing

trim. But if you look at a really nice house, it has the the dentals,

the cove molding, the crown. It’s not a piece of junk, with an asphalt

roof and 2 X 6 finishing. You can tell they put a lot of TLC in it."

So the challenge now for Burkewood is to position itself as a small

but premium facility, here in Princeton.

"We don’t have to be huge to be successful," says Wood. "Everything is

right here. If the customer has a question about pricing or service, I

know exactly what’s going on. In this business clients get nervous

when you’re choking away at an hourly rate, especially with a smaller

budget. Being small and focused on service serves us well."

"We are involved in really high level projects," says Suskin, "like

IMAX film, children’s programming, political work, and corporate work.

We’re doing it across the board, at the highest levels. When you get

repeat clients, then you know you’re doing something well. It’s human

nature to try something else, something new. When they come back, you

know."

Burkewood Communications Corp., 5 Mapleton Road, Suite 301, Princeton

08540. Burke Wood, managing director. 609-520-0090; fax, 609-924-9076.

Home page: www.burkewood.com

Doug Dixon’s Manifest Technology website (www.manifest-tech.com) has

reviews and commentary on computer and consumer electronics

technologies.


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